Trekking the Mountain Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda
Approximately 480 mountain gorillas live in the Virunga
complex and reside on the altitude range of 2,300 to 4,500 meters in the southern area of Virunga National Park in the DRC, the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and some in Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park.
Rwanda has 19 mountain gorilla families
with 10 habituated groups for visitors to see
. This means, a maximum of 80 gorilla permits are available each day
for tourists to trek the gorillas. For those interested in seeing the gorillas in their natural habitat, Rwanda offers one of the best locations for gorilla trekking.
When you arrive at the park headquarters on the morning of your trek, the national park guides will assign you to a gorilla group. The treks take place on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes and tourists should be in good physical condition as some of the trek can be physically demanding. The treks normally start in the cultivated land on the base of the volcanoes and you are then guided up into the beautiful dense misty forests. Some groups are known for ranging far afield while others stay closer to the park boundaries or even go outside of the park. However, all groups move in search of food so there’s no guarantee that one group will be easier to reach than another. A maximum of 80 gorilla permits are issued per day and during high season these sell out far in advance, it is, therefore, important to book gorilla permits as early as possible. These permits currently cost $750 USD per person per trek
The information contained in this set of guidelines is to help you arrive well prepared for your trek and ready to enjoy this unique opportunity to the fullest.
Clothing and Equipment Required
- A small, lightweight, frameless, waterproof backpack
Light, waterproof hiking boots or shoes with tread soles
- Thick socks
- Camera (no flash photography allowed on the trek)
- Leather or heavy canvas (gardening-style) gloves
- Waterproof rain pants, a rain suit or a poncho with a hood
A short sleeved shirt or T-shirt. Long trousers should not be heavy, but should be of the light-weight trekking variety
- A sweatshirt or sweater – not necessary on the trek, as it gets very hot during trekking
- A waterproof, foldable hat
- A water bottle – bottled water and a packed lunch is provided by the lodge
Don’t try to trek the gorillas if you know you have an illness that is contagious. You may pass the disease on to the gorillas with disastrous results. If you suspect that you have such an illness, report it to our head office or to the guide at the park headquarters. There is a good chance that you will be refunded the cost of your gorilla permit. If you do not disclose your illness, and the guide detects it, you will be barred from trekking, and your permit price will definitely not be refunded. Illnesses, in this case, include colds, coughs, diarrhoea and influenza.
Trekking conditions differ greatly according to the location of the gorillas, so the exact level of difficulty for a specific trek is impossible to define in advance. On an excursion, it is entirely possible that you will find the gorillas quite quickly and be back at your hotel for lunch. It is also entirely possible that you will have to hike three or four hours, or sometimes even longer.
Because it is impossible to predict the length and difficulty, the trek should not be attempted by anyone who is not in a very good physical condition. Trekking is likely to involve scrambling through, over, and under dense undergrowth with nettles, barbed vines, and bamboo thickets. Correct footwear and clothing are essential. It is recommended that you build up the strength and endurance of your leg muscles by walking, climbing stairs, knee bends, and similar exercises before you leave home.
Your group's lead tracker will have his "own" gorilla family, which he visits each day and whose home range and travel routes are familiar to him. All trackers are experienced in looking for signs of the gorillas, such as footprints, dung, chewed bamboo and celery stalks, and abandoned nests from the previous evening.
Gorillas soil their nests and then abandon them to build new ones each night, and trackers are able to tell the age of the nests as well as which group made them.
Gorillas do not live in the most easily accessible terrain and prefer secondary growth vegetation with plenty of food plants near the ground and they think nothing of climbing extremely steep slopes to get it.
Trackers generally do allow time to stop and rest along the trail. However, they tend to hike at a steady, somewhat upbeat pace throughout the excursion, for they must be mindful of the time to ensure that you will be able to reach the gorillas, spend a full hour with them, and make it back down the trail before dark.
You will probably smell the gorillas before you actually see them. When you reach them, the tracker will move forward, making soft smacking and groaning sounds with his mouth to assure the group that friends are approaching. Although gorillas make very few vocalisations, this sound of reassurance is one that family members often use with each other.
If your trek to find the gorillas has not been unusually long, you are likely to visit them during their long midday rest and play period. At this time of day, the dominant male (usually a silverback) generally lounges on the ground or against a tree while youngsters roll in the vegetation and climb on trees, vines, and each other. Females nurse and play with their infants. Occasionally, a curious youngster may approach you or someone in your group. Though it is tempting to touch them, this is STRICTLY forbidden
Never stare directly into the eyes of a gorilla, for a fixed stare is as aggressive to them as it is to most humans. Although you may find a gorilla looking directly at you, you should maintain a subservient distance and look at it sideways or from a lower height. Sometimes, as a release of tension or as a display to the rest of the group, a male gorilla may charge and beat his chest, tearing up vegetation and hurling his tremendous frame directly at your trekking group. Despite the temptation to run, you must stand your ground, maintain a subordinate, crouching position, and do your best not to flinch, for the gorilla will stop before actually reaching you and calmly return to his previous location, glancing back at you with smug satisfaction.
Your trekking group will spend up to 1 hour with the gorillas. This time-limit is carefully observed and protects the gorillas from undue stress.
Regulations and Rules of Conduct:
It is important that all gorilla trekking participants familiarise themselves with the following regulations and rules of conduct.
You MUST, at all times, follow the instructions of your guide. He is in contact with the gorillas every day and understands them well. Always remain in a quiet, compact group behind the guide, who will attempt to position you in such a way that the dominant male of the group can see you at all times.
- If the dominant male gorilla, usually a silverback, approaches very closely, or if he charges, it is very important that you do not move backwards. Remain exactly where you are, look downward, and adopt a submissive, crouched posture. NEVER make any sudden movements or loud noises in the presence of the gorillas.
- If a young gorilla approaches, NEVER, under ANY circumstances, make any move to touch it.
- If a gorilla stares at you, look away or down immediately!
- Avoid taking an excessive number of photographs, and NEVER use a flash when photographing the gorillas.
- Only visitors in good health AT THE TIME OF THE TREK will be permitted to trek gorillas, as gorillas are susceptible to colds and other respiratory diseases transmitted by humans. All visitors must be physically fit and capable of enduring a walk of several hours in difficult terrain (as previously described).
- At this time, all gorilla visits are limited to a maximum of 8 persons per gorilla family for a maximum length of 1 hour.
Eating and/or drinking are not permitted near the gorillas.
It is prohibited to destroy any vegetation unnecessarily. All visitors must carry their own litter with them out of the park, leaving NOTHING behind.
- Children under the age of fifteen (15) cannot be accepted on gorilla trekking excursions.